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City May Swoop Down on the Bird Lady of Hollywood

The tons of birdseed she spreads attract thousands of pigeons and the ire of residents. Officials may consider a broader feeding ban.

April 20, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

The seed is flung on the sidewalks by the ton. And the pigeons flock to eat by the thousands.

That's the complaint in Hollywood as unfettered bird-feeding is ruffling the feathers of neighborhood leaders and Los Angeles City Hall officials who are in the midst of an ongoing community beautification campaign.

At the center of the dispute is a triangle-shaped traffic island at Argyle Avenue and Yucca Street where hundreds of pounds of birdseed are spread daily by an elusive woman who has become Tinseltown's biggest Bird Lady since "The Birds" actress Tippi Hedren.

The food draws swarms of pigeons from rooftops, empty buildings and freeway underpasses.

As they gorge themselves, the birds roost on neighborhood utility wires and tree branches, their droppings covering sidewalks, staining parked cars and streaking buildings' awnings and overhangs.

Authorities say they have pleaded with the Bird Lady to stop. So far she has refused, and officials acknowledge they cannot force her to put away her 25-pound bags of seed.

Los Angeles ordinances prohibit pigeon feeding only in a carefully specified section of downtown. So officials may consider amending the city municipal code to extend the ban to Hollywood -- or all of Los Angeles.

Argyle Civic Assn. officers say they have photographs and videos documenting the Bird Lady's activities.

"I've collected birdseed bags she's discarded," said association president Laura Dodson. "We calculate she spreads 112 tons a year above Sunset Boulevard, centering on Vine Street. We've spotted 29 spots she puts down food."

At the Argyle-and-Yucca traffic island, "she's putting three 25-pound bags of birdseed down twice a day," Dodson said. "That's where we're trying to put in palm trees."

In the past, leaders of the Argyle Civic Assn. have viewed the pigeon feeding as a nuisance that has interfered with a long-planned $80,000 landscape project for the traffic island, which they say is a gateway to the neighborhood.

But now they worry that the masses of pigeons -- which Woody Allen once described as "rats with wings" -- could be dangerous if health experts are correct and avian flu is headed for California.

Los Angeles County health officials say there's probably no cause for alarm, however.

"To date, pigeons have not spread the current avian flu to humans. One cat is believed to have caught it from eating a pigeon, but wild pigeons don't seem to be a major source," said Dr. Karen Ehnert, the Department of Health's senior veterinarian.

The county will test around lakes where waterfowl drop feces, said Ehnert, who is among those watching for avian flu's arrival in this country. It is anticipated that wild birds will bring it in and pass it on to poultry. "Pigeons could give bird flu, but they're not the main carrier or focus of it," she said.

Aware of the neighbors' surveillance over the last several years, the Bird Lady alters her seed-spreading routine so that she sometimes hits the streets at 3 or 4 in the morning, say frustrated locals.

Residents said they were waiting for Caltrans to clamp down on their pigeon feeder because the roosting birds' defecation mars bridges and signs along the nearby Hollywood Freeway.

Agency spokesman Dave White -- who used to clean bridges for Caltrans -- said droppings are a major headache.

"You can't paint over it. You can't wash it out with a hose because it turns into a muddy slurry that you can't send down the flood drain," White said. "So you shovel it out into bags or knock it to the ground and clean it up as fast as you can."

But no state crackdown is planned in Hollywood, he said.

City officials, meanwhile, are pondering ways to deal with the pigeon feeding.

Aides to City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents part of Hollywood, have pleaded with the Bird Lady to quit spreading "the mounds of birdseed," as one of them put it. She refused.

"I spoke to her. She told me she was afraid the birds would die if she wasn't there," said the council staff member, who asked not to be identified.

The next step could be to amend the city ordinance to prohibit pigeon feeding on public rights-of-way in specific parts of Hollywood or to ban it throughout the city, said Erik Sanjurjo, a deputy to LaBonge. A spokesman for Councilman Eric Garcetti, who also represents a portion of Hollywood, said Garcetti is willing to discuss the idea with LaBonge.

Pigeon feeding is currently banned downtown between 1st and 8th streets and Main and Figueroa streets. The feeding ban was enacted in 1985 when shoppers and businesspeople complained of hordes of pigeons covering sidewalks.

"The implication is you can feed pigeons everywhere else," said Deputy City Atty. William Kysella Jr.

A citywide ban could prove controversial with animal lovers and those who enjoy tossing an occasional scrap of lunchtime sandwich to a hungry Columba livia, the scientific name for the rock dove -- North America's most common pigeon.

Feeding bans have provoked debate in communities around Los Angeles.

Fines of up to $250 for repeat offender feeders were imposed 11 years ago in Seal Beach as the then-mayor pledged, "We will not starve our pigeons, but just encourage them to go on to greener pastures."

Nine years ago a Pasadena woman was spared a $500 fine when she agreed to stop feeding pigeons on public streets. She was promptly spotted feeding a huge flock outside City Hall, sending Pasadena officials scurrying to amend their ordinance to include that location in the ban.

Two years ago Sausalito passed a no-feeding ordinance to thwart a lone pigeon lover who was spreading large amounts of seed. A short time later San Francisco escalated its crackdown by extending the feeding ban to popular tourist areas.

So without a new Los Angeles pigeon-feeding law, there can be no crackdown in Hollywood.

Foul news indeed for foes of the fowl.

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